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October 23, 2008

Tale of the Twelve Course Meal (Or, the asking that almost wasn't)

October 22. Day 114.

"So what are you going to do with La Sorella in Seattle?" Mr. A asked before I left.


"Sisterly bonding?"


"Hanging out? Shopping?"

"No! Come on, what's the only thing we do when we're together. Our one and only passion. Our obsession."




Ten minutes after I set foot in Slick and La Sorella's apartment, we were out the door and headed for Elemental, a discreet, petit restaurant one block away. They offer a prix fixe menu where the eater must totally relinquish control. The owner/waiter asks if there's anything you can't eat, and then his parner and chef whips up stuff depending on what they found at the market that day. The whole process unfolds over 3 1/2 hours, dish after dish after dish after exquisite dish.

"They kill you slowly," La Sorella explained with a glowing smile.

"There's a chance we won't be able to eat there tonight," Slick warned as we crossed the street. "They don't take reservations and it's usually packed."

Actually, there was just one couple there -- Canadians, we soon found out -- and we grabbed the corner table.

We started with a shot of brandy or fire water or something tiny, strong and transparent. Or was it sake?

Then, cocktails and a bowl of popcorn tossed in truffle oil.

Then, a loaf of steaming bread.

Then, a bowl of gooey artichoke and melted Italian cheese -- had the zing of a very aged parmesan -- surrounded by slices of toasted baguette.

Every time the owner, Phred, came back to take our plates or bring something new, he paused to join our conversation. I told him to pull up a chair, but he couldn't stay that long. We were talking about Sarah Palin and how she discriminated against her sons by only taking her daughters along on state business trips. Such rampant sexism, coming from such a maverick? We were all deeply disappointed. We talked about the electoral process, and whether a candidate can ever be clear of special interests under the current campaign finance system. We talked about corruption in Canada versus the U.S.

Then, crab ravioli came in a very gentle, creamy white sauce. Another white wine.

"You have to eat fast," La Sorella cautioned me now. "If he comes back and there's food on your plate, he will literally grab it from you. The wine, too." She had already cleared her plate. I was only halfway there.

"You guys," I said with a start. "I haven't asked for anything today. I have to think of something here."

"Ask if we can eat for free," Slick said.

"It has to be something they might agree to," I replied.

I started eating faster.

I started drinking faster.

I started panicking about what I could request. Something from the restaurant owners? A fellow diner? Another Craigslist cop out? What did I need or want???

The chef, who had been working silently at the open kitchen a few feet away, approached our table.

"If I can make a suggestion," she began with a conspiratorial tone. "Don't actually finish everything on your plate, because you're just getting started. And if you really like what you're eating, just consider that you'll probably really like the next one too."

Easier said than done. She wasn't the one confronted with plate after plate of delights.

When the sauteed gnocchi with garlic greens (I believe) arrived, I finished every bite and used the bread to drink up the sauce. Defiantly.

The other owner came back now to remove our plates.

"Can I ask you a question?" I said, before he could get away.

"Beside that one?"


"If someone were to ask you for something risque, edgy, ambitious, but something you wouldn't refuse, what would that be?"

He stared at me blankly, then turned around and left.

"There! You asked," Slick offered.

"That didn't count," I countered.

Meanwhile, the restaurant was getting busier and our table was getting louder.

By the time the fish with greens (chard, perhaps?) and coconut rice arrived, I strained my ears to hear what any of our neighbors were saying. I couldn't.

"Are we the rowdy table in the corner?" I yelled.

"What's wrong with that?" Slick yelled back.

"You don't like being at the rowdy table? Ma na na na na na na na," La Sorella added, for emphasis.

Then, grilled haloumi wrapped in grape leaves under a dollop of sweet tomato chutney.

Then, escargo with crostini.

Then, liver on toast.

Then, a pair of dishes at once: sliced duck breast with mushrooms and a rice and pumpkin concoction, paired with both a red and a white wine.

Two dishes at once? Were we so noisy, by chance? they were hurrying us?

"Excuse me. Are we the totally rowdy table in the corner?" I asked the owner, this time, as he dropped off these dishes.

He just chuckled and walked away.

My sister was now repeating a refrain from Empire Records, "Damn the man, save the empire. Damn the empire, save the man," to anyone who would or wouldn't listen.

"I haven't asked for anything!" I wailed.

"Ma na na na na," my sister replied.

How much longer would this meal last? What time was it? How many plates had I eaten? It was all starting to become a blur... I reached inside my purse to check my cell phone and missed. How many glasses of wine had I had? Wait, I wasn't counting...

Dessert came. A slice of soft cheesecake and a chocolate panna cotta, impeccably firm.

And like that, it was over. The bill came. We put on our coats.

Honestly, I was terrified I'd blown it. We had been the rowdy table in the corner. Obnoxious revellers in this coccoon of soft music, genteel murmurs and candelight, where only the food and drink should stand out. And there was so much I wanted ask now. The recipe for the artichoke or gnocchi, how they come up with the menu every night, if I could go shopping with them at the farmer's market -- but they'd never agree. Not now.

But their house was a block a away... bedtime around the corner... this was my only chance.

I pattered to the bar, where the chef was hard at work.

I leaned against the counter for support. "I've had an amazing meal. It's been one of the most delicious evenings of my life," I started, trying to hold my voice steady and look her straight in the eye.

"Thank you!" she replied.

"I've been asking for something every day, and today I'd like to ask if I could come along on one of your food shopping trips. I'm only in town for a week. I'm from San Diego. Everything was so delicious."

"Sure." SURE??? "I go every morning. I'm wondering what day would be most interesting for you... Would Saturday work?"

"That's perfect!"

"We're catering a wedding too, so I'll have to pick up a pig to roast."


I left her my number. I hope she'll actually call.

Gained: A potential gourmet shopping trip with the chef of this twelve course coup.
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